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A customer shops for garden flowers at Nelson Flower and Garden during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Burlington, Ont., on May 4, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

At GardenWorks in North Vancouver, B.C., customers can’t do enough to express their gratitude that the store recently reopened after weeks of only being able to offer curbside pickup and delivery due to COVID-19. They write thank-you notes, send effusive e-mails, drop off cookies and give employees the namaste gesture before they walk through the doors.

“I’m so happy you’re fully up and running again,” one customer wrote to Leanne Johnson, president of GardenWorks, B.C.’s largest independent garden centre operator. “Walking through your store again with so much greenery was beyond therapeutic.”

For weeks, GardenWorks, like countless garden centres and nurseries across Canada, has been operating with a skeleton workforce. They scrambled to keep up with online or phoned-in orders from customers itching to dig in some dirt, plant flowers or grow their own fruits and vegetables. “We were working extremely long days and simply could not keep up,” Johnson says. “Something had to change, and thank goodness [the legislation] did in B.C., because it was not sustainable.”

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Why it’s more important than ever to support community gardens

In mid-April, the governments in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec eased up on the COVID-mandated closings of nurseries, greenhouses, garden centres and farmers’ markets by declaring them essential services, allowing them to open for business provided physical distancing measures were in place. In Nova Scotia, businesses had never been mandated to close, with most greenhouses and nurseries operating with the same stringent safety protocols as grocery stores.

Ontario still lags behind. Last week, the government announced garden centres and nurseries could offer curbside pick up and delivery – something many were already doing. The industry is lobbying hard to be given the same cautious green light other provinces have allowed.

An employee picks flowers and plants for customers at Nelson Flower and Garden.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

“Our industry makes 70 per cent of its annual revenue from mid-April to mid-June,” says Mark Cullen, author of several gardening books and a consultant with Home Hardware, which operates 250 garden centres across Canada. “Over $450-million worth of Ontario plants in greenhouses right now will be thrown out if they can’t get to the independent garden centres.

“We already lost Easter [sales]. More flowers are sold on Mother’s Day than any other special occasion on the calendar, even Valentine’s Day. There are millions of dollars at risk. The wholesale value of those two holidays is $305-million in Ontario," he adds.

To further complicate things, customers don’t know where to turn for their gardening needs. “Some supermarkets are setting up their garden centres in parking lots. Others are not,” Cullen says. “Some, like Costco, are not opening garden centres but they are bringing racks of plants into their stores. It’s a circus.”

In the Maritimes, where the growing season typically starts a bit later than the rest of Canada, demand for plants started at least three weeks earlier than usual. “People at home are looking for things to do and gardening is one of the best hobbies I can think of,” says Emily Tregunno, a co-owner in Halifax Seed Company, a wholesale distributor of plants and garden supplies, and an operator of two retail stores, one in Halifax, the other in Saint John.

“This year, our customers are chomping at the bit. We opted to close our retail stores for safety reasons and turned them into processing centres to fill online orders for pickup and shipping,” Tregunno says. “It’s been a scramble. We are working seven days a week, with far less staff. We’ve had to shut down our website multiple times so we can catch up with the backlog.

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“A lot of what we’re doing now is managing customer expectations. Most people are fabulous but some customers are incredibly frustrated and voice it. I understand it, but we are quite literally doing everything we possibly can.”

In British Columbia, Johnson says relaxing restrictions is a step in the right direction, so that companies such as hers can meet the surge in demand from veteran green thumbs and novices cooped up indoors for too long because of COVID-19.

At GardenWorks, where customers are greeted by “gate ambassadors,” there is no tension to be found. A recent thank-you note, prominently displayed, reads: “Grateful for your efforts! I think many of us realize what an essential thing gardening is in these unprecedented times.”

Tips for growing at home

Last year, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports suggested a dose of nature, such as two hours a week working in a garden, is good for your physical well-being and mental health. As the weather warms, now is the perfect time to start growing plants from seeds indoors, in preparation to move them outside. Here are some tips to planning, planting and reaping the benefits of a garden that not only yields healthy food but will bring some purpose (and calm) into your life.

Plan ahead

It pays to have a list of what you will need before heading to a garden centre or nursery. If you want to plant a vegetable garden, and you’ve never done it before, reach out to an expert. As Sue Baker at Sheridan Nurseries in Georgetown, Ont., says: “You’re spending a lot of money, so you want to be set up for success.” Healthy soil is a must. Prepare your beds and containers by adding fresh soil, compost and mulch. Once the plants are in, fertilize every couple of weeks.

When to plant

Once the temperature is about 1 C you can start planting “cold crops” outdoors – hearty plants such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, leeks and lettuce, as well as some peas, onions and beans. In the Maritimes, where frost still comes in May, start herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers indoors from seeds and transplant them into larger pots once they start to grow. Add marigolds to beds or pots in the next few weeks. They attract good insects (ladybugs, hoverflies) that prey on nasty garden pests. Fragrant herbs often do the same trick. Make sure you plan your garden or containers in such a way that there is enough space between plants for adequate nutrient uptake.

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Think generational

If you have the space, set an area aside for your children or grandchildren and plan to grow things that are easy, such as lettuce (the super shallow roots are perfect for pots or containers), radishes, beans, carrots and peas. Children can pull these plants themselves, Baker says, and “get instant gratification when they’re done."

Little tricks

Self-watering gardens that mimic the natural water table for growing plants are ideal for decks, balconies and anyone who has to leave town for a few days. Plants draw water when they need it from a reservoir in the bottom of a raised planter bed. Life Space Gardens delivers such kits for use across Canada. Seed tape (made of biodegradable fibre) ensures seeds are all perfectly spaced. Dig a shallow furrow, place the tape on top and cover it with soil. Keep moist. It reduces the need down the road to have to thin plants out.

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